Satan wants me for a pop star

Because the straight world was convinced rock'n'roll was evil, rockers have always loved to proclaim their sympathy for the Devil. It's just boasting, isn't it? Not all of the time
Click to follow

In the world of pop music, it's almost axiomatic that the more dedicatedly decadent the performer, the more normal he or she turns out to be. From Screaming Lord Sutch to Marilyn Mansun, artists who, on the face of it, appear to be in league with the devil are inevitably revealed as ordinary Joes. Like Alice Cooper's Vince Furnier, they enjoy nothing more dangerous than an occasional round of golf. The live chicken-guzzling Ozzy Osbourne now looks like the pantomime dame he probably always was, and the Herculean drug-intake of "infamous" US bands such as Mötley Crüe seems merely an extension of the fraternity-house japes practised by any tediously competitive group of college jocks. Meanwhile, the real dark side remains the preserve of Tory-voting teeny-bop moguls and managers, or ex-Radio 1 DJs from the Seventies who end up embarrassing their local rotary club when eventually exposed by the News of the World.

But if it's transgressiveness we're looking for, it's the music itself that comes up with the goods. Cultural representations of pop as essentially evil bubble up from the collective unconscious like The Exorcist's vile lime-green sludge again and again, especially from the days when the music was relatively new. In stiff-upper-lipped British "social problem" films like 1958's Violent Playground, mild guitar-rock of the Cliff Richard variety is revealed as a menace to society. When juvenile liason officer Stanley Baker goes to visit a "troubled" youth on a Liverpool estate, the angelic blond boy is found dancing to a hit parade song. Seemingly possessed by the music, he begins to shake uncontrollably, eyes rolling like a zombie's. Poor Stanley is taken aback, and the hairs of his short back and sides fairly bristle with anxiety. Happily for British society, Cliff's The Young Ones soon supplied the antidote, making both youth clubs and pop music safe once again.

The shaking, however, was for real. In the early days of rock'n'roll in the UK, an ability to shake was essential for any aspiring pop performer. Indeed, some made a whole career out of this and little else, like Wee Willie Harris or Johnny Kidd of the Pirates. Even the "stable' of anodyne acts "groomed' so carefully by manager Larry Parnes (a paradigm of the Svengali pop impresario in Britain) had to be able to shake to earn their keep, and Britain's greatest rock'n'roll star, Billy Fury, was a shaker par excellence. In the US, Elvis Presley had already supplied the template by being famously unable to keep his limbs under control. On The Ed Sullivan Show, the host instructed that Elvis should only be filmed from the waist up, as if what was going on down below was too awful to contemplate. The shake was also a genre convention, a stand-by for rockabilly acts such as Gene Vincent. It perhaps developed originally from the primitive baptist churches of the southern US, where congregations liked to handle snakes and drink ether in order to get more in touch with the Lord. Shaking might even have begun as an emulation of the snakes themselves, a possibility rich with potential references to all those all old blues songs and record-label graphics featuring slithering-reptile iconography.

Along with shaking and snakes, and the obvious sense of sexual threat they represented, popular fictional responses to rock'n'roll also focused on the political dangers implied by the music's hold on youth. In the Sixties, films such as Wild in the Streets in the US, and Privilege in the UK (starring Paul Jones, who'd just left Manfred Mann), imagined pop stars being used as figureheads for fascist coups, lulling their fans into zombie-like compliance through little more than personal magnetism and a three-chord trick. In Nik Cohn's novel of 1967, I am Still the Greatest Says Johnny Angelo – described on its blurb as "a heightened picture of the violent and monstrous reality underlying the pop phenomenon" – pop singer Johnny is bad to the bone, a psychopath who rises to messianic power and glory like Jimmy Cagney in a Thirties gangster film. Just as with Violent Playground and earlier social problem films such as Cosh Boy, the ending of the enforced repression of rationing and National Service had apparently led to an eruption of Saturnalian rites among the countless legions of teenage zombies, driven crazy not by sex and drugs, but by milk-bars and the hand-jive.

The French critic Georges Bataille wrote a book called Literature and Evil, glorying in the self-conscious trangressions evident in the work of 19th-century writers such as Edgar Allan Poe and Charles Baudelaire. As a companion volume, Pop Music and Evil would struggle to rise above the dreary record of antisocial crimes committed by those sad managers and DJs already referred to. But there is a kind of tradition at work on the fringes of rock'n'roll or pop that's worthy of inclusion, and it's to do with magic and murder.

Aleister Crowley didn't make any pop records – although you can order albums of him speaking via some of the innumerable sites devoted to him on the internet – but the chap once called the most evil man in the world (not true, and in any case his parents were members of the Plymouth Brethren, which explains a lot) has enjoyed a rich influence on music and musicians. This stretches from the English classical composer Philip Heseltine (who wrote as Peter Warlock – a dead giveaway) to Ozzy Osbourne's pre-panto pranks, Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page (a famous Crowley-phile, who went as far as "collecting" Crowley's house in Scotland, Boleskine) and the various projects of Genesis P Orridge, such as Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV.

As for murder, Charles Manson's relationships with the LA rock fraternity are well known. They go far beyond the Beach Boys, who recorded his tunes. In Barney Hoskyns's excellent history of LA rock, Waiting for the Sun (Viking, 1996), a cursory glance at the index under Manson reveals a number of instructive entries. He met Beausoliel in Topanga Canyon, then the rural retreat for Hollywood rock stars. "A lot of pretty well-known musicians around LA knew Manson, though they'd probably deny it now," Neil Young recalled. "The girls were around too. They'd be right there on the couch with me, singing a song". Young was impressed enough by Charlie to recommend him to Warner Brothers' Mo Ostin. The only impediment seemed to be that Charlie didn't have a band.

Young met Manson at the Benedict Canyon home of Beach Boy Dennis Wilson, where the serial killer became a familiar of the Golden Penetrators' club formed by Wilson with record producers Terry Melcher (step-son of Doris Day) and Gregg Jacobson. Manson's composition "Cease to Exist" – and what a clairvoyant title that was – was included on the Beach Boys' album 20/20, re-titled as "Never Learn Not to Love".

As a high – or low – point of rock'n'roll's flirtation with the dark side, this material does have a certain decadent charm. But there's also a damning sense of political naivety about it, as the essentiallly fascist regard for transgression above all else, while aiming to make for good copy and vicarious thrills, often ends up as tacky as a Hello! magazine-style spread on so-bad-they're-cool celebs.

But the subject sure does run and run. As Dr John told me in an interview, when I mentioned that Jimmy Page had been in the audience of his Jazz Café show the night before: "Yeah, we had a couple of things in common." Only one of them was drugs.

Comments